Nightclub owners warn that the after-dark economy is in jeopardy as licensing rules bite
By Rebecca Burn-Callander, Enterprise Editor
Today’s youngsters are more likely to spend their Saturday night watching their favourite YouTube star and sending Snapchats to their virtual friends than hitting local clubs and sinking a few jars.
More than a quarter of people in their teens and early twenties are teetotal, according to the Office for National Statistics, up from 19pc in 2005.
Britain’s bars and clubs, which depend on carousing young people to survive, are under increasing pressure. The number of nightclubs in the UK has almost halved, from 3,144 in 2005 to 1,733 in 2015.
But it isn’t just the rising popularity of clean-cut living, as peddled by “vlogging” sensation Zoella, behind the dramatic fall. The combined effects of the longest recession in living memory, the smoking ban, and increased regulation has taken its toll on the night-time industries.
At a recent round table hosted by the Institute of Ideas (IoI), club owners, policymakers and festival organisers debated whether regulation is killing the night-time economy.
“Police and local councils are seeing nightclubs as a strain on resources,” says Alan Miller, the man behind the iconic Vibe Bar, a venue credited with helping to regenerate London’s Brick Lane, which was closed in 2014 after 20 years.
“The night-time economy generates £70bn for the UK, and employs young people, creating excitement in a local area but, at a time when police budgets are under pressure, it’s seen as a strain.” This, despite crime in England and Wales hitting record lows.
To attempt to control businesses that promote revelry and often alcohol consumption, a raft of regulation has been brought in, from the Late Night Levy, which effectively taxes night-time venues to cover the cost of policing, to the Anti-Social Behaviour Crime and Policing Act that came in to effect on October 21 last year and the Public Spaces Protection Orders, which both place blame for crime and disorder squarely at the door of venues.
“If you get mugged at a cash machine, the bank isn’t held accountable, but police will ask criminals where they had their last drink and the venue becomes the crime creator,” says Miller, who is also chairman of the Night Time Industries Association, which lobbies on behalf of clubs and bars.
There have been several high-profile incidents in the past year where venues have had their licences revoked as a result of perceived crime creation. Madame Jojos in London’s Soho, home to some of London’s most diverse nightlife for more than half a century, had its licence revoked by Westminster Council in November last year after its bouncers were seen on CCTV using baseball bats to deal with an alleged drug dealer.
Nickie Aiken, chairman of licensing for Westminster Council, made the call. “The license was revoked because the management was out of control,” she says. “Are we really willing to accept bouncers being armed with baseball bats.” Critics argue that it was an isolated incident.
Also in London, Hackney has moved to restrict the operation of late-night clubs and bars. Henry Dimbleby, founder of restaurant chain Leon and one of the chief proponents of the We Love Hackney campaign, which is fighting the new rules, says: “There is a normally silent majority of residents who are fed up of being told to go to bed early. They love the nightlife and don’t want it curbed.”
Fears that local councils are “sanitising” buzzing hotspots of night lifewere raised at the IoI round table.
In an interesting shift in drinking patterns, supermarkets now represent 50pc of all beer sales as drinkers opt to tank up at home instead of go out. More than double the number of supermarkets now hold 24-hour licences than pubs, clubs or bars.
Mac’s Bar in Preston, a nightclub with a capacity of 600 people, had its licence revoked after an incident last April. “It was the busiest night of the year,” recalls owner Alan Macdonald.
“We got a temporary licence until 5am and at half five there were a few hundred people still in the street. The police used pepper spray and batons to disperse them.”
Macdonald, having successfully appealed against a closure order, a new piece of legal apparatus that has only been in force for a year and which allows councils to close venues within 48 hours, will be back in court in January, fighting for Mac’s licence.
The business, which lost £100,000 as a result of the closure, and has paid £110,000 in legal fees with a further £40,000 outstanding, has criticised the local council for targeting the club. A spokesman for Preston City Council said it was not policy to comment on individual cases.
Glasgow’s legendary Arches club has also been closed after its licensing hours were curtailed following police complaints about disorder, including drug use.
London Mayor Boris Johnson has backed the creation of a “night-time champion” – a night mayor – last week to ease the burden of red tape on the companies that operate after dark and fight for the rights of business owners.
The move follows similar initiatives on the Continent: Amsterdam introduced a night-time mayor in 2003 who has been instrumental in supporting 24-hour licences and mediating between venues and local government.
“The night time economy is hugely important to London’s growth and success. It drives much of our tourism industry and underpins so much of our rich cultural landscape – not just in the world famous West End, but right across the city,” said Deputy Mayor for Education and Culture, Munira Mirza.
“Although the businesses in this sector are incredibly diverse, ranging from small grassroots music venues to large nightclubs, it is clear that they are increasingly facing common challenges regarding regulation, licensing, planning, business rates and policing.
“The Music Venues Rescue Plan which we commissioned earlier this year, recommended that we create a Night Time Champion, as exists in other cities, to advocate the value of the night time sector and design policies that can support it.
“We are talking to businesses, local authorities and other agencies about what value such a role could bring and which model would work best for London and hope to say more in early 2016.”
“We need someone on the ground with venues and local authorities,” says George Hull, festival organiser and founder of the Bloc venue in Hackney Wick.
“Especially in newly wealthy boroughs where venues are treated differently because of rising values of the land. It seems to me that lots of venues are being closed for reasons associated with real estate.”
“If we want to be a 24-hour city to rival Berlin and Amsterdam, we need to support our night-time industries,” says Miller. “We must work with authorities to ensure we are not clamping down and over-regulating but expanding this global city.’